If ever an actor deserved an A for effort, it’s Jeremy Davidson in the Berkshire Theater Festival’s technically brilliant production of Norman Allen’s one-man play/monologue “Nijinsky’s Last Dance,” in which Davidson gives his all for nearly 90 highly physical minutes. He shows his all, too, in an extended nude scene in which the legendary Russian ballet dancer Nijinsky poses for and apparently has sex with the sculptor Rodin (although the dancer’s mentor and lover, the impresario Diaghilev, soon put a stop to that). Yet for all the strengths of the play, actor and production, the audience never gets beneath the surface of historic facts about Nijinsky. Davidson, a thoroughly modern, American-sounding and -looking man with a superb physique and nary a suggestion of neurosis, never for a moment evokes the early 20th century Russian ballet dancer of Polish extraction, “an odd, strange boy” who ultimately succumbed to insanity.
Allen’s stream-of-consciousness script, which has Nijinsky telling his life story from a padded cell in a sanatorium in Switzerland in 1919, is far from the first play about Nijinsky; there’s even one with the same title written by James Jennings and tried out at his American Theater of Actors in New York in 1997. Allen’s play was first seen at the Signature Theater in Arlington, Va., in 1998-99, with Davidson and much the same creative team as at the BTF. That production won a number of D.C.’s Helen Hayes Awards.
Director Joe Calarco’s admirable staging is played out on a bare platform on the stage of the BTF’s second theater, the intimate Unicorn. With highly imaginative input from set designer Michael Fagin and lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner, the production seamlessly embraces a wide world of milieus visited by Nijinsky, including St. Petersburg, Paris, London, Berlin and Utah. Utah? As the audience laughs, Nijinsky thanks the one member of the Utah audience who understands.
An essential element of the production is David Maddox’s detailed soundscape of sound effects and music, including references to Nijinsky ballet scores by Debussy, Stravinsky and Weber, some of which are electronically transfigured. The main theme of Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” is played by a variety of solo instruments, starting with a cello, as Davidson’s Nijinsky tells of that ballet’s scandalous reception. And toward the end, as darkness and madness descend on the now-married Nijinsky, the poundings and howlings of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” are ominous omens of what’s to come.
Play opens with Davidson, in a straitjacket, shuffling onto the stage and falling to the floor with shrieks of horror. He then frees his arms and begins Nijinsky’s tale, from his student days at the Mariinsky through his great ballet triumphs, sexual adventures, marriage, madness and that titular last dance. It took place in a St. Moritz hotel just after WWI and was Nijinsky’s reaction to the war. At the end of the dance, God said, “Enough!” and Nijinsky never danced again.
Along the way Davidson more or less impersonates a number of other characters, men and women, including Diaghilev; Tamara Karsavina; and Nijinsky’s wife, Romola. Yet Davidson remains firmly Davidson. Nijinsky as Nijinsky never materializes.
Nor does Davidson ever actually dance, though choreographer Karma Camp has cleverly provided him with a variety of Nijinsky steps and poses that the actor performs with considerable skill. Notable are the famous hand movements from “Afternoon of a Faun,” the ballet in which Nijinsky was accused of suggesting autoeroticism.
Each and every surface element of this “Nijinsky’s Last Dance” is superbly accomplished. If only someone involved had been able to dig below the surface and get to the heart of Nijinsky, the man and the ballet genius.